Saturday 10 May 2008

I woke up...

....yesterday morning with Gordon Ramsay. Not an encouraging image - but, to be more precise and to reassure those of a nervous disposition, he was merely pontificating on the radio. I half listened, and as he appeared to be saying that restaurants should only serve fruit and vegetables when they were in season, it seemed to have a kind of logic. I mean, strawberries and peaches out of season are dire - and increasingly ubiquitous - and I fully agree it's time that we reversed the trend of ' everything available, all the time' since it appears to be sending overall standards of quality down the pan as part of the process.

But, no - apparently, this wasn't what he meant at all. As the Technical Department - who had been listening properly - subsequently communicated to me. It was an entire diatribe, somewhat inarticulately linked with the idea of food miles and global warming, and introducing the concept of punitive fines for establishments which served anything outside the prescribed dates. "Nasty little fascist", was probably the mildest - and pretty much the only printable - comment from the TD, who got really quite aerated about it. Putting aside all images of SS-style raids from jack-booted 'elf'n'safety 'operatives' on hapless culinary establishments who might be serving raspberries or mushrooms or plums outside the period formally recognised by the by-laws of Kidderminster or Burnham-on-Crouch, it seems to me to be a fundamentally witless position to try and adopt. If the underpinning of the argument is to address global warming, then clearly it would mean banning anything which isn't in season in the UK, ever - like lemons, and avocado, and aubergine, and peppers, and tuna, and garlic, and oranges, and melons....the list is endless. Presumably it would apply equally to wine and all forms of alcohol produced further away than a bike ride from where it is likely to be served? Whoops - not sure how well that sits with your Threshers deal, Gordon!

And there's a fine irony to the fact that Ramsay's first restaurant, before he took over the erstwhile premises of Tante Claire, was called 'Aubergine' - which by his current reckoning should be off-limits all year round!

Anyway, it's perfectly clear what's going on here. Gordon is trying to do a Jamie, and establish his social-pioneering credentials in claiming the relevant bit of the moral high ground, exactly as Jamie did (some might say equally fatuously) over the subject of school dinners. And Dymphna or Clarissa - or whatever Gordon's fluffy-headed PR person might be called - observed Delia so clearly dropping the ball the other week, when questioned about the political correctness of buying mid-winter beans from Kenya, and they thought they saw an opportunity. Oh dear. Not Thought Through. On any level actually, since a brief glance at the menu currently on offer at Ramsay's restaurant in New York reveals it positively overflowing with things like perigord truffles, pine nuts, and iberian ham, and his establishment in Grosvenor Square is offering swordfish, caviar, and tuna - all straight from the Thames, no doubt

It's a very complicated issue, and clearly one which is beyond the abilities of Dymphna or even Gordon himself to address in any sensible way. Two central themes do emerge, though: firstly, there should be much greater emphasis on improving the quality of the produce which is generally available to us (yes, I know that wasn't what he was talking about, but it is implicit in considering questions of things being available seasonally, and is a personal hobbyhorse of mine), and secondly, to think that the problems of the World will be solved by shutting down International Trade is merely facile. We cripple third-world economies in the process of hugging to ourselves our little-Britain smugness? I don't think so......

Back to the kitchen, Gordon - once you've extracted your foot from your mouth, that is - and stick to rattlin' dem pans! You might look marginally less of a twit, that way......

Tonight's Dinner:

Asparagus Mousse

Veal Burgers, served with sweet & sour Courgettes

Lemon & Blackberry Burnt Creams

Friday 9 May 2008

Recipe: Amaretto Soufflé

Quick, simple, and elegant. The texture of this soufflé is agreeably chewy, from the presence of the chopped almonds, and the flavour hit from the liqueur contained within the biscuit base gets a thumbs-up every time. As a trick whenever making individual soufflés, the presence of an alcohol-soaked layer of cake is something always to remember - with the layer of cake either being put in the centre of the soufflé, as Alain Ducasse advises, or in the base, as in this recipe (which is marginally less fiddly). Pierre Hermé uses a variation on this theme with his light chocolate sponge discs, for use in either chocolate tarts or chocolate soufflés. However you prefer to do it, it introduces an 'event' into the dish which otherwise can seem too much on one note.

For two individual soufflés.

Ingredients: 40g slivered Almonds; 1 tablespoon of Sugar (or Splenda - works just as well in this recipe); 150 ml Milk; 15g Butter; half tablespoon of Plain Flour; 2 Eggs; 6 Amaretto Biscuits; 2 tablespoons of Amaretto Liqueur; half a teaspoon of good Vanilla Essence.


1. Heat the oven to 220 degrees C.

2. Put the Almonds in a small saucepan, along with half the Milk, and half of the Sugar (or Splenda). Briefly bring to the boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for a minute or two. Then leave to cool down.

3. In a double-boiler or zimmertopf, melt the Butter and stir into it the flour; using a hand whisk, gently stir in the remaining Milk. Heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture thickens (about five minutes) then beat in the two Egg Yolks.

4. Combine this mixture with the Almond-Milk-Sugar mixture; add the Vanilla Essence and half of the Amaretto Liqueur, and process the whole thing for a minute in a liquidizer or food processor.

5. Divide the Amaretto Biscuits and the remaining Liqueur between two greased ramekins (or sprayed with Trennwax) , carefully spooning the liquid so that it is absorbed by the Biscuits.

6. Beat the Egg Whites until firm, along with the remaining Sugar (or Splenda) ; fold in the soufflé base, and divide the mixture between the two ramekins, on top of the soaked biscuits. Put the ramekins in a bain marie and bake for 10 minutes in the pre-heated oven


Thursday 8 May 2008


....has started in a storm of activity. Well - for us, at any rate. In fact, the first of the month, which for everybody else in Italy is an annual holiday, in this household is the day in the year when we forget that the whole place is closed down, and invariably have forgotten to provision in advance......I don't know the reason for the mental blockage, but the process of forgetting happens every year, as regular as clockwork. The provisioning aspect would have mattered less, this year, were it not for the fact that my parents were arriving that day for a visit.......and menu plans for the weekend were instantly thrown into complete disarray. Quick thinking and recourse to the store-cupboard ended up with a scratch supper of Rabbit Terrine, Sage & Onion Risotto, and Vanilla Apple Tarts. Honour was just about preserved!

Dinner was preceded by a stroll down to the river, and around the regional Italian Food show that had taken up temporary residence in the Loggia dei Banchi, just beside the Commune. In the evening sunlight, we wandered from stall to stall, sampling cheeses - in general, not a highlight of Italian cuisine, and frankly there were no surprises on this occasion - and Salami, and various more or less exotic alcoholic beverages. I ended up investing in a Salami which rejoiced in the name of Mulette a Barolo (apparently made from a strain of wild pig) and a bottle of Crema di Mandorle, which was like a turbo-charged version of Orgeat, and would definitely not merely have blown the bloody doors off ......

Friday: to Florence, and the Library at San Lorenzo. Its eccentric opening schedule has meant that I've never actually seen it before, and the visit was long overdue. And splendid, it was! From the majesty of the staircase, bizarrely encased within a space of blind walls, so that its theatrical downward sweep ends up going nowhere, to the calm of the Library itself. It left us pondering how Wren could possibly have recreated the space so perfectly in Greenwich and Cambridge given the tenuous basis for any knowledge he might possibly have had of San Lorenzo's existence. As yet, the riddle remains unsolved. Lunch - of course - at Camillo: lack of imagination meant that yet again I had fried rabbit, which is so delicious there, followed by a Torte di Riso - the texture of which prompted research in Pradelli as soon as we were back in Pisa, to find out more. This is yet another of those dishes that smacks of times long past, the idea of which is always so fascinating.....More on this at a later date, I think (being mindful of the limited powers of concentration of some readers in Stoke Poges, who have been known to complain about the length of posts...)

Saturday: a gardening day. Everything is responding splendidly to the arrival of summer, and the place is festooned with cascades of white roses (Mrs Herbert Stevens; City of York; Sombreuil; Mme Alfred Carriere; Paul's Perpetual White...) as well as Irises, Arum Lilies, Marie Pavie, snowdrifts of Jasmine blossom, and the first of the year's crop of Passion Flowers. In addition to hacking and slashing on an industrial scale, to ensure that we don't end up drowning in floriforous vegetation, I found time to plant a Bergamot Tree (Dario had sent it from Sicily, where he was apparently filming a documentary for National Geographic along with A.A.Gill - how that came about, I haven't the faintest idea!) and spraying the Persimmon Flowers with a noxious insecticide that I hope will stunt the crop, and mean we don't have to deal with several thousand over-ripe persimmons next autumn! Otherwise, the lemon trees are all showing an incredible crop, this year, and I am extremely proud of the 33 fruit (as yet quite tiny) which are gracing the branches of the White Peach tree. As a noisy backdrop to all of this - much sawing and hammering - the Technical Department is working on enclosing the central section of the Loggia in a thousand metres of trellis, all of it painted an elegant copper-oxide green, just like the railings outside Apsley House.

Sunday: To Brancoli, to visit the beautiful Crusader Church of San Giorgio, and then down the hill to inspect the gardens and the vineyard. All looking wonderful....from the rose pergolas, to the wild orchids, to the stunning display of wisteria (variously white, purple, and pink), and of course the vines, bringing on this year's embryonic vintage. We drank some of the 2005, to accompany a perfectly barbecued tagliata, and had the first (Italian) al fresco dinner of the year, looking out and across the valley, down towards the lights of Lucca twinkling far off in the distance. Eventually, in true tired-but-happy style, we meandered homeward down the hill at the end of the evening, laden with the usual ill-gotten gains of Brancoli Marmalade, and Brancoli Olive Oil, and several demi-johns of Brancoli wine......

Life isn't all awful!

Tonight's dinner:

Scrambled Eggs with Smoked Salmon

Roast Beef, with Turnips roast in Goose Fat (Oh, to be in England...!)

Amaretto Soufflés